Free Herbs from nature
By Crystal Merrell
Free stuff is great. Everybody knows that. Backroad blackberries gathered on a hot summer morning taste better than those bought at the store. Squash and cucumbers gifted from your aunt’s overflowing garden come with a heaping helping of love on the side. And my favorite - free and plentiful wild local herbs. It is like your birthday combined with a scavenger hunt! You get the free gift of the herbs AND the joy and experience of the hunt and gather.
Earlier in the season, honeysuckle was in abundance. Sucking the sweet liquid from the white and yellow honeysuckles is a treasured childhood memory for so many in our mountains. But did you know that this familiar honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) was introduced to New York in 1806, is currently considered an invasive weed, and that it is still a highly prized medicinal plant in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)?
I harvested the white and yellow blossoms for several consecutive days and dried on a repurposed window screen until I had ½ gallon mason jar full. Several studies have shown our common honeysuckle to stop the replication of the influenza virus1. That’s big! It is free, available, and scientifically tested to be useful against flu and virus. Antiviral is not honeysuckles only traditional use, though. Honeysuckle tea has been used as a wash for the skin rashes and sores, and more.
In bloom now is Mimosa Tree (Albizia julibrissin) with it’s whimsical pink feathery flowers straight out of Dr. Seuss. This is an invasive and fast growing tree in the southeast which some find annoying, which is ironic as in TCM, Mimosa is the ‘tree of happiness’. Last summer I harvested enough to dry and fill a pint jar. Since the traditional use includes grief relief, I used that harvest to make a tea during my March workshop for Women of Lost Pregnancy. It makes a very light, yet not too sweet tea.
Other traditional uses include ‘relieving emotional constraint with bad temper, bad mood, sadness, and irritability’. I just want to go on record stating that the amount of mimosa flowers blooming this year seem to me to be double that of last year, and I will attribute it to the plant world picking up on all the ‘emotional constraint’ associated with this year’s presidential elections. (a bit of herbalist humor, haha!)
Honeysuckle and Mimosa flower teas are not one-cup-wonder medicines, but could be a useful and safe addition to your existing healing strategy.
Basic guidelines for gathering plants from the wild include a lot of common sense.
• DON’T gather from areas where any contamination could have occurred. This includes areas sprayed with chemicals, road sides, or an area exposed to water runoff that isn’t clean.
• DO properly identify the plant before gathering. Use an ID book like Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide or other respected guide. It DOES matter what genus and species you gather - Lonicera japonica with its white/yellow flowers is NOT the same as the native Lonicera sempervirens (Trumpet or Coral Honeysuckle) with it’s red flowers. Lonicera sempervirens is NOT medicinal or edible.
• DON’T take it all. Leave some for the critters and insects, as well as to ensure the plant community will survive and be there next year. It is nice to have a ‘spot’ that you can reliably harvest from every year rather than looking for new plant communities each season.
Even now, we have a handful of locals that will still harvest from the wild, and just a generation or so ago it was more common for everyone to do it. If you want to learn more about harvesting and drying medicinal plants, join me on July 23rd for a 2-hour hands-on class. More details at www.crystaldawnherbs.com